MARK GILBERT - DUKE
Mark Gilbert returns to Duke after a stellar sophomore year where he finished 5th in the country in total passes defended. Gilbert has prototype size at 6-1/175 and he plays with really good technique. Duke is a sleeper pick to compete for the division this year and if Gilbert can make some of the same plays he made last year, their defense could lead the way.
TRAYVON MULLEN - CLEMSON
Clemson’s defense is getting a lot of publicity but the secondary is one area where there is some uncertainty. They do have to feel very good about Trayvon Mullen at one corner spot, though. Mullen wasn’t tested much last year as the opposite side of the field was a rotating door for most of the season. Mullen has a great mix of size and speed and he plays with the type of calm confidence that you need from your top cornerback.
ESSANG BASSEY - WAKE FOREST
Wake Forest lost their defensive coordinator before last season but the drop off that some (read: me) expected didn’t really materialize. Essang Bassey played a big role in that. Wake still had a very aggressive scheme that put their corners on an island a lot. Bassey took that challenge and led the conference in PBUs in his sophomore season.
AMARI HENDERSON - WAKE FOREST
Wake Forest returns, arguably, the best corner tandem in the conference. Amari Henderson ended his sophomore year with 2 interceptions and 12 PBUs. Wake will have to find a pass rush this year after losing so much talent from the front 7. Those losses could make things tougher on the corners and these guys might end up having a rough year.
LEVONTA TAYLOR - FSU
I was going to put Levonta Taylor in the “Best Of The Rest” section because his numbers weren’t that great last year. But, he had the same issue Trayvon Mullen did last season. Teams avoided him. Taylor might not have that luxury this year with a better corner across the field from him as well as a more aggressive scheme that will make it harder for offense to pick and chose where they go with the ball.
LUKAS DENIS - BOSTON COLLEGE
Lukas Denis entered the last game of the season tied for the national lead in interceptions with 7. Then his own quarterback threw a pick to the guy he was tied with. Denis still finished his first full year as a starter with some outstanding numbers. 83 tackles, 7 picks, 10 PBUs, and 2 forced fumbles. If he can repeat those numbers, Boston College’s defense could have a very good year.
JUAN THORNHILL - VIRGINIA
Bronco Mendenhall made the decision to move Juan Thornhill to safety this year to replace All-American Quin Blanding. That might end up being best for Thornhill even though he was one of the top corners in the conference last year. He already has the size needed at 6-1/210 and in their defensive system he can use his speed and ball skills as a deep safety. That’s something that Blanding struggled with at times. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see Thornhill have a breakout year.
BRENTON NELSON - VIRGINIA
While Blanding was an All-American multiple times during his career, Brenton Nelson did what he needed to do to try to replicate that feat to an extent. Nelson ended up on almost every freshman All-American team there is after putting up 64 tackles and 4 interceptions. Those numbers should improve with another year in the system and the losses of tackling machines Blanding and Micah Kiser.
JAQUAN JOHNSON - MIAMI
The turnover chain was one of the best things in sports last season and Jaquan Johnson got to wear it multiple times for the Hurricanes. Johnson forced 7 turnovers last year and ended the year with nearly 100 tackles. Miami brings just about everyone back and has another full year in Manny Diaz’s defense. Johnson decided to come back to school even though he probably would have been a late round pick. He could really help his draft stock with another big year.
BEST OF THE REST
Cameron Glenn - Wake Forest
K.J. Sails - UNC
Stanford Samuels - FSU
Trajan Bandy - Miami
Michael Jackson - Miami